The Secret Power of Middle Children

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The Secret Power of Middle Children: How Middleborns Can Harness Their Unexpected and Remarkable Abilities by Catherine Salmon, PhD, and Katrin Schumann is the first book I’m exploring in my bibliotherapy and self-development series. It is a research-backed exploration of the feelings and actions that middleborns make in the world. With regards to relationships among siblings and parents, and to issues such as voting, responsibility, and gender roles, the authors provide thought-provoking, discussion-evoking chapters that can be read in any order and, in my opinion, are great to share with family.

During a long car drive, I read aloud a couple chapters to my mom: “Parenting as a Middleborn” and “Parenting a Middleborn”. We had a lively and engaging discussion about our birth orders and how certain attributes fit or do not fit our perceptions of ourselves.

I am a middleborn, close in age to my eldest sibling (female) while my younger sibling (male) is significantly younger – so in some regards, I feel like a lastborn and in others I feel like a firstborn. Based on what this book presents, it’s not uncommon for firstborn and secondborn children to essentially swap roles.

My mother, who is a firstborn and has two younger male siblings, has felt that her middleborn brother has taken on many firstborn traits. Since this secondborn child is the firstborn male, the text explains that cultural norms can and will dictate the traits that siblings (sometimes unwittingly) exhibit based on gender.

I haven’t had the chance to pick my siblings’ brains on this topic but would be interested in hearing their perspectives. Additionally, my dad was an only child – only children can be at once treated like a firstborn and a lastborn. They can be babied or experience tremendous pressure.

Below are just a few of the quotes that stuck out to me, and I’ve included my thoughts after.

Are you a middleborn? Do you see a difference in the way you and your siblings act or have been treated by your parents/guardians? Comment below!

“For middleborns, what affects the development of their personalities is not so much their own conflict with their parents but that of their older sibling (or siblings). It’s not surprising that high levels of conflict between parent and child increases the likelihood that children will reject authority.”

There was a vast difference in the amount of quarrels my older sibling and my parents had than either I or my younger sibling had. Watching their struggles, it was much easier for me to tread a narrow path because I didn’t want to be in the midst of one of those arguments. As adults, I don’t think we reject authority so much as question the appropriateness of who is in those positions. For me, it is easier to accept authority from someone who it seems has actually earned their role based on their knowledge and merits rather than on knowing the right people or being in the right place at the right time.

“One subtle but remarkable finding was that Republican lastborns often vote more liberally than Democratic firstborns, which helps explain the liberal voting record of a lastborn Republican such as Justice John Paul Stevens and the conservative record of a firstborn Democrat like Robert Jackson. Birth order is clearly a predictor of voting tendencies, with the likelihood of liberal voting increasing as birth order increases.”

My siblings and I are relatively liberal about our beliefs, and I personally believe my youngest sibling (who is younger by 8 years and is male so according to this book, would take on a lot of firstborn/only born tendencies) tends to come across as more conservative in some areas than either I or our eldest sibling does.

Changes with Age
“First, it’s important to remember that most of these types of studies are conducted on adolescents and university undergraduates, where the participants are usually under twenty-four years of age. While at this age it’s not uncommon to carry some childhood grievances, as individuals mature, they typically outgrow the old grudges they may have held against their parents or siblings when they were children.”

I found this quote so interesting because as a middleborn who in childhood wanted to avoid conflict, at that time I didn’t feel like I had the mental space to even begin to process things that were bothering me or that were issues between myself and my parents and siblings. As an adult, who is now also a parent, I see many things through a new lens, or at least with a new filter on that lens. I attribute this to going to college, moving away from home and joining the military (both allowed me to meet so many different kinds of people), and being open to people. Learning about the world through media and in conversations with others helps us see things in a new light.

However, some conflicts with family members are truly difficult to overcome. It’s important to recognize the difference between when something is resolvable on your own versus when professional help is needed. I feel like the word “intervention” can carry a heavy, negative stereotype, but intervening in your own life long enough to let someone else help can make a world of difference. Someone can get all the help to process what they experience, but it doesn’t mean the person on the other end of that conflict will feel the same way. As adults, we learn what battles are important to face and what to let go – and get to decide if we even want to be in the battle at all. I count myself fortunate that my family – while beautifully imperfect – does truly, deeply love each other and tends to do their best to make the world a better place for each other.

And that’s not just the middle child in me trying to make the best of everything!

If you’re interested in learning more about birth order, check out the following:
– NPR: The ‘Secret’ Perks of Being a Middle Child

You can learn more about Dr. Salmon and her other works at the following sites:
University of Redlands
American Psychological Association

Learn more about journalist Katrin Schumann and her works at her website, including her emotional novels The Forgotten Hours and This Terrible Beauty. She also worked on Mothers Need Time Outs, Too, which sounds like an interesting exploration into why and how mothers need to ensure they take time to rest.

Katrin’s About section states, “most of my writing explores our search for a sense of belonging, and the struggle to define ourselves in the context of our circumstances.”

In the end, we all want to find where we fit. That place where we don’t have to try quite so hard to be accepted.

Learning about ourselves and others helps us build empathy, and even if some of the characteristics don’t match up with your experience, it’s still fun to discuss and think about.

Stay tuned for the next installments of this series – The Truth About Grief and Why We Sleep.

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